Israeli Operations in Gaza and the Issue of Proportionality – Silverman

Since the beginning of Israel’s military operations in Gaza a great deal of ink has been spilled, and digits used up, going back and forth over the how of what Israel is doing. While it is true that the easily offended and quick to take umbrage professional defenders of all things Israel quickly got their full hissy fit going regarding questions as to what exactly it is that Israel is trying to accomplish, many much more thoughtful and deliberative individuals from left (Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole) to right (Daniel Larison) have been more properly focusing on the how of Israel’s response to Hamas’ rocket attacks; especially if it is ethically and legally acceptable as to its proportionality. These authors, and many others online, in print, on the radio, and on TV, have all in some way raised the question or concern of proportionality. This was especially seen early on in posts and articles in Haaretz.

COL Lang offered me a chance to weigh in on this important question and issue regarding the use of war and political violence in general and the Israeli operations in Gaza in specific. As someone who’s work and focus is on the socio-cultural or human terrain, the answer as to the how of what Israel is doing, and whether or not it is proportional, lies itself within the Judaic tradition.
When both students and ethicists of War, as well as suitably informed commentators discuss the when and how of war it is usually within the ethical construct of Just War Theory. This tradition, dating well back into the Roman Empire (Cicero wrote and spoke on the topic), comes down to us in the US today through Christianity, specifically the Catholic tradition originating in the writings of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bernard of Clarivoux. Just War Theory is broken down into three component parts: bellum justum – the overarching criteria for a just war that apply to the other two sets of criteria, jus ad bello – which define if and when a just war state can engage in a conflict, and jus in bello – which provides the ethical guidelines for engaging in a just war. In fact much debate still goes on today over whether activities during WW II, or other recent conflicts, are completely covered within the Just War Tradition. Usually these revolve around the question of proportionality. For instance, the Dresden fire bombings, as well as the use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki still lead to vigorous, and I would argue healthy discussion surrounding the various components of Just War. It is important to remember that just because a state falls within the Just War tradition, or any of the other religio-political traditions for engaging in warfare, there is no guarantee that those state’s leaders, populace, or military will actually follow the rules.
Judaism, like every other major religious tradition has its own ethical norms for War. There is one major difference between the Judaic guidelines and the Just War tradition: there is no real developed ethics regarding proportionality. This is important to take note of for two reasons: 1) it is the question of proportionality that goes to the heart of the argument over Israel’s actions in Gaza. This is not a discussion of justification or equivalence, but rather one of “given that Israel has a responsibility to defend itself and citizens, as well as to treat fairly with the Palestinians as their occupier, is the manner of Israel’s response ethically acceptable?” and 2) what does this lack of a Judaic concept of proportionality mean?
The lack of an ethic of proportionality clearly arises from the historical reality of Judaism and Israel. The three Just War equivalents for Judaism are derived from the scriptures and indicate what type of conflict is permissible under which circumstances. There are three that are delineated: obligatory, optional, and commanded. Obligatory wars, basically those fought during the Israelite conquest of Canaan during the early biblical period are largely recognized as being something that can no longer be engaged. Moreover, they had some of the harshest practices, including the use of the herem or ban – the utter and complete destruction of the enemy. The concept of optional wars essentially covers those conflicts engaged in during the existence of the unified kingdom under David and Solomon, as well as those that took place under the divided kingdoms of Judaea and Israel. The final category, commanded, is the one that covers the conflicts of modern day Israel. In this case war is considered to be legally (ie halakhically) valid to protect the state, the population, allies, and/or those who can not defend themselves. Moreover, it may also be preemptive to prevent harm from being inflicted on any and/or all of the above.
The missing component to all of this, and what is found in the Just War Tradition, is the one governing the conduct of the combatants. While Judaism does preclude the use of excessive force and makes it an obligation to avoid noncombatant casualties, to treat captives with dignity, and not unduly destroy fruit bearing crops, the rules regarding proportionality are both dated in antiquity and essentially nonexistent. The reason for this seems to be, the historic reality that from 135 CE the Jews never controlled a state. As a result all subsequent discussions of War and its conduct, even by such intellectual and ethical heavy weights as Maimonides, were all academic activities. This is in direct contrast to the development of the Just War Tradition. Cicero, the Roman formulator, was trying to reconcile Platonic and Aristotelian concepts with the reality of Roman governance. Augustine, Aquinas, and Clairvoux were trying to do the same thing as Catholicism spread throughout Europe and either directly or indirectly ran both the spiritual and the political. Jews, never being in a position to run anything for two thousand years, never had to develop a concept of proportionality in War because there was never any chance of them organizing or carrying one out. And while many Jews, both in and out of Israel, have discussed this issues since the Jewish State’s formation, the religion itself, as well as the socio-political culture of Israel has not completely caught up to the military and security reality.

Adam L Silverman, PhD; Social Science Advisor, US Army’s Human Terrain System

The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army’s Human Terrain System, the Training and Doctrine Command, and/or the US Army.

For a much fuller treatment of both Just War Theory, as well as the Muslim equivalents of jihad and shahadat, please see my “Just War, Jihad, and Terrorism: A Comparison of Western and Islamic Norms for the Use of Political Violence.” In the Winter 2002 edition of The Journal of Church and State.

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19 Responses to Israeli Operations in Gaza and the Issue of Proportionality – Silverman

  1. somebody says:

    that is hogwash. “Maimonides wrote on theodicy (the philosophical attempt to reconcile the existence of a God with the existence of evil in the world). He took the premise that an omnipotent and good God exists. He adopts the Aristotelian view that defines evil as the lack of, or the reduced presence of a God, as exhibited by those who exercise the free choice of rejecting belief.” from Wikipedia.
    Maimonides lived in the 13th century, like everybody then – Christians, Jews, Muslims he believed that anything in war was just if g-d was with you (g-d had a very split personality then, however, Mainomides also insisted that g-d was not multiple – that would have meant more than one person courd be right at the same time, I suppose. actually he lived in the times of the crusades.
    if Israel wishes to go on a Jewish crusade – good luok. It has now united every kind of Muslim against them including the Catholic church and worldly atheists like this ex-Catholic European, and many more.
    I recommend the ring parable by Gotthold Emmanuel Lessing – that is 18th century enlightenment, which unfortunately did not really catch on in Germany.

  2. wrensis says:

    And this stops when?
    When do you support peace? “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”
    Enough of ALL of the playground bullying.

  3. johnf says:

    Thank you for that, Mr Silverman.

  4. Eliot says:

    Fascinating post. Very much appreciated Dr. Silverman.

  5. J says:

    A statement by a Hamas Imam, links israeli mafia to arms supplies to Hamas. This Hamas Imam recruits in the West Bank recently told Die Presse Vienna that elements of the Israeli army provided his group with weapons. The comments of Imam ‘Ali’ were made during an interview with Die Presse and was reported Dec 30 08. When asked where Hamas gets its weapons, ‘Ali’ replied — ‘smuggling, for example from egypt. the muslim brother hood supports hamas. but the mafia in the israeli army also sold us weapons during the intifadah. israel does that to this day. it often happens that israeli soldiers lie that they have lost their weapons. in reality they sell them to hamas. and hamas takes them because they must have weapons, it makes no difference who they come from. hamas is poorly armed. the explosives are handmade, just like the qassam rockets.’
    When asked why Israelis would want to pass weapons to Hamas, ‘Ali’ responded – ‘israel’s iterest is that hamas be well armed so that the world sees that hamas is a military fully equipped. two things can be said on that: first of all, hamas knows about it. second, hamas has a weak army. the strength of hamas is the loyalty of its members. they would not cheat the army. but israel makes the press, the propaganda. for everything that happens israel has a scapegoat: hamas. israel tends towards exaggeration only to show that hamas is a terror movement.’
    Hamas was created by Israel to act as a foil against Arafat’s Fatah. And the links between Israel and Hamas continue to this day.

  6. Will says:

    Two things are lost in this.
    1) the reason is that they shoot the rockets (in reality the Qassams are mortars) is b/c they are BLOCKADED. lift the blockade, ergo no more rockets. But the Israelis want their cake and eat it too.
    2.The Fourth Geneva Convention which covers the duties of occupying powers as well as belligerents.
    There is a breath of fresh air blowing over the Canannite archaelogy holocaust city theory. yes, the Torah proposes that their cities become burnt offerings. Samuel remostrates w/ Saul about even the lowing of Amelike oxen that he allowed to live.
    Archaeologist Israel Finklestein (The Bible Unearthed) proposes that the evidence from the ground point to the Canaanite origin of the Israelites in the hill country of Judea. The Exodus from Egypt was not a physical march from Egypt b/ separation from Egyptian occupation & control.
    That kind of view is more in line w/ that of Uri Avnery of returning to Canaan as long separated Canaanites and making common cause w/ the indigenous people.
    1Sa 15:14

  7. John Merryman says:

    The basic problem with monotheism in the first place is that the concept of God is a contradiction. Going by Pope John Paul ll’s description of God as the “all-knowing absolute,” the first problem is that the absolute is basis/foundation/neutral/zero. As opposed to singular/focal/apex. This would mean the spiritual absolute would be the essence of conscious awareness from which we rise, as opposed to the theological assumption of a moral or intellectual ideal from which we fell. Knowledge is also a process of distinction and judgement, while the absolute is a universal state, lacking any distinction or division. Oneness is an undivided state. One is a set divided between inside and out.
    On a practical level, it has been useful and convenient to posit a God as the ideal singular ruler and father figure, over the period that humanity evolved from individual groups to larger and more complex social organisms, as a way to integrate the various belief structures. We are now seeing the weaknesses of a top down authoritarian theology, as different traditions of the same concept of absolutist idealism come into unrelieved conflict. There is no room for compromise, yet that it what is most essential for the survival of civilization.
    Human society needs to start re-evaluating its basic assumptions, or else. We learned to create bottom up political structures when the top down monarchists became unworkable. Now it is time to review the top down theologies from which those kings derived their divine rights.
    The only singular entity which truly encompasses humanity is this planet and we have to stop taking it for granted. The old rule books need to be re-written. Humanity needs to proceed up the biological ladder and transition from being top predator of the planetary eco-system to central nervous system of the planetary organism. This requires treading the middle ground between anarchy and totalitarianism, if we wish to survive. There are two sides to every coin, even if it’s difficult to see both at the same time. After three thousand years, the monolithic mindset has outlived its usefulness. Of that we are being offered overwhelming proof.

  8. Jose says:

    “Obligatory wars, basically those fought during the Israelite conquest of Canaan during the early biblical period are largely recognized as being something that can no longer be engaged. Moreover, they had some of the harshest practices, including the use of the herem or ban – the utter and complete destruction of the enemy.”
    Moral rationalization for the current settlement policies and treatment of the Palestinians in general in the West Bank and Gaza?
    “Those who fight monsters should take care that they never become one. For when you stand and look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” ~ Frederich Nietsche

  9. JohnH says:

    There is another interesting moral difference between European and Judaic tradition. The Talmud has a rule of “anticipatory self defense.” In other words, “if a man comes to kill you, you kill him first.”
    Israelis have never had any moral doubts about preemptive or preventive war. And the concept of “anticipatory defense” has been taken to extremes, such as their itching to attack Iran for what Israel imagines are Iranian intentions surrounding an unproven nuclear weapons program. Again, there is no question of proportionality, such as “if a man comes to kill you, get him arrested or find a way to disable him.” There seems to be no requirement of imminent danger or even a need to provide reasonable proof of the threat.
    In foreign relations, it boils down to “if you think an enemy might someday have a notion to kill you, you can kill him first.” In other words, paranoids have license to kill with impunity and without having to justify themselves, other than to say “we thought they were coming to kill us.”
    Whew! How do you live with someone like that? Particularly when that someone has special access to the most dangerous weapons to man?

  10. agog says:

    This is all very erudite but given what is happening in Gaza now the concluding sentence by Dr. Silverstein seems be something of an understatement. One detects a certain lack of urgency for the need for Israel’s military and religious establishments to eventually “catch up” with modern notions of Just War Theory.
    Is the piece meant be some sort of an apologia for Israel’s current actions or is it trying to explain to the Gazans why they are apparently being vapourised by white phosphorus and DIME munitions?

  11. mo says:

    a- Get barrel
    b- Put 10 yellow fish and one red fish in barrel
    c- Stop feeding all the fish because they have a red fish with them
    d- Wait for red fish to splash some water at you
    c- Fire missile from f14 at barrel and claim you only wanted to kill the red fish and it’s the fault of the red fish for not jumping out of the barrel in the first place that the yellow fish died. And make sure you have people on news media worldwide explaining how you really love the yellow fish and never wanted to hurt them. And that you are the real victim for being forced to kill the yellow fish and having to live with the trauma of that.

  12. Sidney O. Smith III says:

    Fascinating post by Dr. Silverman. As others have noted, Dr. Silverman’s analysis certainly shows he is an educated intellectual and I appreciate the insights.
    But simply to present a different angle, my initial response is that the Satmar Rabbis would disagree vigorously both with Dr. Silverman’s analysis and with some of his underlying assumptions. And I am yet to find a group more Jewish and more American than the rabbis of the Satmar tradition, so they and their viewpoint deserve a standing to be heard, imo. Yes, I know that they do not lead a “progressive” lifestyle, but I am more interested in finding analytical assumptions that help the USA.
    However, that said, I will admit that I need to think through the concept of proportionality in more detail. But in the meanwhile, I would like to point out that, according to the JP, former Sephardi chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu advocates carpet bombing of Gaza.
    Here is the key quote:
    “According to Jewish war ethics, wrote Eliyahu, an entire city holds collective responsibility for the immoral behavior of individuals. In Gaza, the entire populace is responsible because they do nothing to stop the firing of Kassam rockets.”
    Perhaps the following questions are rhetorical but they are intended to suggest an answer worth pondering. Isn’t Eliyahu expressing a view of “war ethics” that represents the complete antithesis of that underlying the just war doctrine from the West? If so and if the just war doctrine is considered good, then, logically speaking, where does that leave Eliyahu’s doctrine of carpet bombing?
    So the following question arises: is the grand strategy of the GOI also mutually exclusive from the just war doctrine? Pappe’s work all but indisputably proves that the historical strategy of the GOI is one of ethnic cleansing, which was bit of a shocker for those of us raised on Leon Uris. Actually, it was close to an experience of betrayal, at least for those of us who believe in the spirit underlying E Pluribus Unum.
    So what is the historical intent of the GOI? More times than not, those who follow a spirit of ethnic nationalism will jettison the just war doctrine. So the idea of carpet bombing Gaza is symptomatic of an underlying racial animus hiding behind religious symbols. For decades, Satmar rabbis have pointed out that particular aspect of Zionism, and, further, they continually emphasize that Judaism is a religious experience not a racial one. So I tend to believe that Satmar, on some levels, may better represents the beautiful spiritual waters of Judaism.

  13. Will says:

    Can’t blame it all on the Jews. The misuse of Monotheism to justify rape and looting of the other didn’t just start w/ historical Moses (if he indeed existed). If he did, then he was under the long tutelage of his father-in-law the Midian (Arabian from whis is now Hijaz-Mecca) Priest, Jethro.
    The three monotheistic religions are all covered in gore.
    I”m still credulous at the teutonic knights crusade against the Poles, though Christian – not consecrated in the proper way!
    Or William I circling the English countryside killing everybody until the Saxons had enough and crowned him king.
    Or the the low altitude firebombing of the Japanese cities,s the acts of so called Xtian Europe in two world wars, the Muslims in India.
    When I took a Buddhist course in college, the prof said some of the zeal of the Japanese had its origin to the pure land Buddha movement.
    Having said all that, we are blessed to have an institution such as the Papacy in this modern world that calls for moderation and is a rallying point for justice.

  14. charlottemom says:

    A few questions regarding this perspective:
    1) If in fact, Judeism has different war ethics based on its religious teachings, why is this exception allowed? Futhermore why would non-Jews need to subscribe or abide by them? Especially when they run contra to our own religious teachings?
    2) These “jewish” war ethics seem to rationalize collective punishment and advocate terrorism of a sort. Terrorism is religiously sanctioned? HOw is this morally different radical Islam?
    3) the idea of just war (as developed and used by the Catholic Church) has served to preserve and pursue its economic and political realm and/or imperialism. Can we not admit that now?
    4) Is Israel a democracy or a theocracy? Seems to be, it picks and chooses which to be at its convienence. Does it abide by laws of man (international law, in this case) or NOT?
    4)Why are we twisting ourselves in knots trying to moralize, intellectualize, rationalize the indefensible? “Treat the [average] Palestinian as the occupier”… this theological rationalization of collective punishment in war lacks grace.

  15. JohnH says:

    Actually, Will, it all started before Moses, when Cain killed Abel. Interestingly, Cain cultivated the land, which meant that he possessed the good land, while Abel was the shepherd, consigned to the marginal lands.
    And to this day, semites are killing semites. Wikipedia reads, “The inherent selfishness of Cain, his jealousy, rivalry, and aggression are central to the story. The disconnection between Cain and his higher nature is so great that he fails to understand and master his lower self even in the face of God’s wisdom and hospitality.”

  16. Marcus says:

    “And while many Jews, both in and out of Israel, have discussed this issues since the Jewish State’s formation, the religion itself, as well as the socio-political culture of Israel has not completely caught up to the military and security reality.”
    To echo Agog above: This may be a good illumination or apologia of Israel’s decisions but Israel’s actions conflict with US ideals–not Neocon ideals–our historical ideals.
    There are other harsh and repressive regimes in the world but no other save Israel enjoy our full support. This type of severe group punishment on a population held for over 40 years without any real form of self-determination or freedom of movement is a unique type of intimidation in modernity.
    There is a line of foolish thoughts and actions, from Israeli tactics, to Neocon philosophy, through to the Bush Doctrine.
    Israel’s enemies are becoming better equipped and more hardened in their resolve as a response to Israel’s “iron fist.” Does the US want to be joined permanently to this self-destructive struggle? If not, the Bush doctrine should be formally repudiated by the incoming Administration to signal a stop to these self-destructive policies.

  17. Dan M says:

    Responding to “J” upthread. When i was in the west bank a year ago i met a lot of Fatah (non-uniformed, not part of the security services) gunmen who had M-4s and M-16s. They said they bought them from the israeli mob who work with corrupt soldiers. I have no proof these statements were true, but it seems likely. In Gaza it’s more AKs (and of course the US weapons we so helpfully supplied to Dahlan’s men, who so helpfully gave them up to Hamas when they were defeated in Gaza). Last I knew, Dahlan was living/plotting in Egypt. His home in Gaza, at any rate, has been destroyed by an israeli bomb.

  18. The concept of “Proportionality” derives not from religion but from learned discourse on international law concepts including those such as “retaliation”,
    “retorsion”, and “reprisal”. I thought human terraine delt with cultural analysis that makes armed ops decisions that are more effective, efficient, and yielding better long term tactics and strategy. But guess I was wrong.

  19. Maria says:

    During the WWII, Germany was fighting for the resources for the Germans. According to Dr. Silverman’s logic, Nazi Germany led an honorable fight for the national interests and the future of Germany.
    By giving primacy to the Israeli Just War Tradition, the author leaves out the contemporary international codex worked out by the Western Civilization to protect the innocent victims of war. Dr. Silverman’s paper is an attempt to find justification of the current Israeli’s atrocities in the scriptures. But Israel is not a kingdom under David and Solomon, and Europe is not a theocratic domain under Pope and Clairvoux. This is the 21st century. The Geneva Conventions have a purpose to protect my child – and other nations’ children – in case of a war conflict that could happen because of the cynicism and greed of the grown up.
    In fact, Dr. Silverman propagates the idea of moral relativism. This idea has become very popular in the American conservative think-tanks with the unraveling of the apparently disastrous Bush’s policies.
    PS: Dr. Silverman, please, read the last book by Alexander Solzhenitsyn that documents the role of Jews in the Soviet revolution in Russia. Hopefully, this book will make you much more careful in using the words “terrorism” and “terrorists.”

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